1

Creating Meaning for Library Users

Two weeks ago I attended an event for the kickoff of the Native Creative Consortium of Vermont. They brought in Nathan Shedroff, a pioneer in Experience Design. His talk was fascinating. He talked about how everything is an experience and that companies and organizations, whether consciously or not, are creating certain types of experiences for their users. Instead of thinking that you’re a shoe manufacturing company, or a computer company, or library, you should be thinking more deeply about what experiences and expecially what meaning you are creating for your users. Shedroff’s main point’s are well captured in this TED talk:

Shedroff discusses 15 core meanings that we have as humans. These meanings are:

  1. Accomplishment - Achieving goals and making something of oneself; a sense of satisfaction that can result from productivity, focus, talent, or status
  2. Beauty - The appreciation of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or spirit
  3. Community - A sense of unity with others around us and a general connection with other human beings
  4. Creation - The sense of having produced something new and original, and in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution
  5. Duty - The willing application of oneself to a responsibility
  6. Enlightenment - Clear understanding through logic or inspiration
  7. Freedom - The sense of living without unwanted constraints
  8. Harmony - The balanced and pleasing relationship of parts to a whole, whether in nature, society, or an individual
  9. Justice - The assurance of equitable and unbiased treatment
  10. Oneness - A sense of unity with everything around us
  11. Redemption - Atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline
  12. Security - The freedom from worry about loss
  13. Truth - A commitment to honesty and integrity
  14. Validation - The recognition of oneself as a valued individual worthy of respect
  15. Wonder - Awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding

Thinking in terms of meaning when creating resources and services can be a really helpful framework in libraries. At a more professionally focused school (like my institution), accomplishment is likely a meaning that would be important to many students. With this meaning perhaps services would be designed in such a way that students could learn on their own and there are a lot of ways they can Do It Yourself (DIY). Perhaps at liberal arts college, enlightenment would be a more relevant meaning. For these type of users you may want to design more around the “a-ha!” moment. Using this model, you need to examine your own community and tap into what is meaningful to them.

We are not simply delivering access to e-books or databases. We are not only conducting reference interviews or doing information literacy. We are doing something much more important than that.

3

How To See The Library With Fresh Eyes

Goofy looking kid

Photo by schani on Flickr

I just finished the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. I highly recommend it and got a number of great ideas from it. But when I read it, one idea in particular stood out in relation to libraries. The idea is “the Curse of Knowledge.” The Heath brothers discuss the Curse of Knowledge in this example:

“Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”

Librarians unfortunately are under the spell of this curse. Most of the time we think like librarians. We’re sophisticated searchers, evaluators, collectors, organizers and don’t know how to be any different. We know what a database is and what a catalog is. Often, our patrons don’t. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our users. And this is exactly what we need. In order to best serve our users we need to be able to see things from their perspective – see the library with fresh eyes.

How can we do this? It’s not always easy but there are a few ways to break out of your rut and lose your librarian perspective for a while:

  • Use library workers and work study students – library workers and students are valuable assets. They bring a different perspective and often work very closely with patrons. I’m always surprised by the great insights or ideas that these people come up with. Tapping into their perspective can get you closer to what the patron sees.
  • Use new librarians – people who just enter the field shouldn’t be thought of as greenhorns that need to be trained, they should be treasured as valuable, short term resources. They don’t have years of experience and THAT is what they bring to the table. Their not encumbered by the view that “this is how we’ve always done it.” They see the library with fresh eyes. But they won’t be that way forever. Learn from them while they’re still fresh.
  • Work like a library patron – Brian Herzog from the Swiss Army Librarian had a great idea of setting up a day when librarians work like a patron. You use public computers, public restrooms and do everything as if you were a patron. This is an great way for empathizing and gaining a more patron-friendly perspective.
  • Patron feedback – Actually ask patrons what they think! I’m sure most libraries do this, but are you doing it enough? There are lots of ways to get patron feedback: surveys, focus groups, suggestion boxes, email, ethnographic studies, social media, etc. There is no such thing as talking to the patron too much. Continually question them, because the best way to understand our patrons is to ask them what their perspective is.

What ways do you use to see the library with fresh eyes?

4

Who Are YOUR Users?

baby in a library

photo by found_drama on Flickr

Google’s pretty powerful, right? It’s the most popular search engine, owns the second most popular search engine (Youtube), and there’s Gmail, Docs, etc. It’s a conglomeration of a lot of different services into a single massive company. Google can do a lot of amazing stuff because it’s so big and has so much capital.

But Google’s just one company. There is also strength in numbers. One of the main strengths of libraries are their numbers. There are more public libraries in the U.S. than McDonald’s. Libraries may be much smaller than a company like Google, but because of that they can be much more focused. Google is trying to “organize the world’s information.” Libraries aren’t trying to do that. We’re trying to organize and provide access for information that’s relevant to our users.

Because there are a lot of small libraries serving different communities, we can provide resources that’s relevant to them. The Fletcher Free Library here in Burlington lends out gardening tools. This is because they know that there’s a lot of interest in home gardening in this area. Because libraries are small and many we can know our specific communities and deliver value from that knowledge.

Knowing our users is one of our big competitive advantages, so don’t forget to make use of it. In things like implementing new technologies, figure out what YOUR users are using. Are there a lot of smart phones or regular phones? Do they communicate via email, IM, or Facebook. At Champlain College we’re a fairly small school, but I know that a high number of our students are on Twitter (as of today we’re in the top ten on CampusTweet). But this is not true everywhere. Twitter might not be right for every community.

It’s also necessary to continually learn about your users. Don’t always assume that you know them. Do traditional things like suggestion boxes, surveys and old fashioned talking to people. But also, simply be curious about your users. Wander around, observe them, glance at what they’re doing on your computers. Also listen to what users are saying online. I have a post about how to go about that. I find out some of the most interesting things through some of the alerts I have set up.

To succeed at what we’re trying to do we need to realize what our strengths are and leverage them. One of our biggest strengths of libraries is the fact that they are small, many, and know their users.